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Amendment 2A

Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Lord Berkeley:

Moved by Lord Berkeley

2A: Clause 1, page 2, line 2, at end insert—“(4) The Sponsor Body must ensure that the first works carried out as part of the Parliamentary building works are to ensure that all buildings undergoing works are provided with—(a) a fully automatic fire alarm system achieving BS5839 L1/P1 standard; and (b) a fully automatic water mist suppression system.(5) Exceptions to the requirement under subsection (4)(a) may be justified only on grounds of practical feasibility and must be given prior approval by the Sponsor Body.(6) If, for reasons of practical feasibility, the requirement under subsection (4)(b) cannot be delivered, the Sponsor Body must approve an alternative fire suppression solution before further works may commence.”

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 2A, 2B and 16A, which are all in my name. These are all about fire. We have had several debates in your Lordships’ House about the risk of fire in this building. As we saw at Notre Dame in Paris a few weeks ago when the roof caught fire, there are issues about how we protect roofs and the building both when it is in use and when there are contractors on site. Many noble Lords will have seen the results of fires. I think the Queen has had bad fires in two palaces during her long reign, and we have had two fires in Glasgow and in many other places. Having spent quite a lot of time looking at fire prevention and the consequences in the Channel Tunnel and other long tunnels and in other buildings, I suppose that fire is of great concern to me. I am very grateful to two officers of the House, John Bradbury and Malcolm McBride, who have helped me and discussed the issues and the problems with me. I am also grateful to Stewart Kidd, who is a past secretary-general of the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association.

When we come to fire, three separate issues need to be discussed: detection; evacuation of people; and suppression—that is, how to put the fire out. I think the authorities in your Lordships’ House and the other place have made progress in detection. There are certainly very good systems in the basement, and I know that they are doing some things to detect fire in the roof. I will come to evacuation later. It is fine to have a fire detected, but if you are not going to let the building burn to the ground, you have to suppress the fire before it goes too far. I know we have good procedures in this House when the contractors are working on the roof, and I am sure they are very well policed, but there is still a risk. Given the special nature of this building and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said earlier, our job is to protect Parliament, we have to take these issues extremely seriously. That is why I put these amendments down. They are probing amendments, and I hope to carry on discussing the various issues in the amendments with Ministers, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and other people after this debate.

The first thing that needs to be done, when any works are done in a building such as this, is to put in a fire alarm detection system and a water mist suppression system. That is covered in Amendment 2A. People will say that it is impossible—it should have been done by now, but it has not been—and within the constraints of the Bill it is no good asking for it now because we have not started the work. Putting them in now, or at least as soon as we can, will at least mean that the building will be protected during the construction. It would be temporary pipework and perhaps some extra wiring, and it might be expensive, but it would be quite expensive—and a complete disaster—if this building caught fire.

We have had a discussion about whether it would be possible to put a water mist system into Westminster Hall. As we all know, it has a very big span and it is the most iconic building in the Palace. I am advised that a water mist system could be put in in Westminster Hall with the present technology. Therefore, I do not think that it should be dismissed out of hand. It would need to be in the roof space and a proper study would need to be undertaken, but if it is possible to do it—it needs a certain amount of compartmentalisation as well —it should be considered because it would be a great shame, and even a disaster, if the roof of Westminster Hall caught fire, given its age and iconic nature.

It would be very easy for experts to say that the things suggested in Amendment 2A cannot be done, are not feasible or are too expensive. I believe that one proposal for putting detection systems into part of this building was rejected by the Treasury as being too expensive. I do not think that the Treasury should be the judge of what it costs to preserve this building. New subsections (5) and (6) proposed in Amendment 2A require that the sponsor body must be given very good reasons for exceptions, and it must be able to suggest alternatives.

Amendment 2B comes under the second part of “detection—evacuation—suppression”, and that is evacuation. We have had several helpful meetings with noble Lords and Ministers on this question, and I was struck by comments made at the last meeting by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, from the point of view of wheelchair users. She said that there are times when she cannot get through the doors of this building and that she sometimes got stuck, which meant that she could not vote in a Division because she could not get there. We have to consider very carefully that, after having moved out into a nice new or converted building, we will all be quite used to having loos and lifts that are accessible for disabled people, committee rooms with loudspeakers and microphones so that you can generally hear what is said—which is not the case here at the moment—and offices that we have similar access to. Therefore, when we come back here—if we do—we will expect the same things, and I do not think that many noble Lords will be happy if we do not have them.

It is lovely having an office in the main building, as I do, even if it is at the far end. It is Room S3/3 and is accessed by two narrow staircases with no fire escape, but we love it. However, we will not be prepared to come back here if most of the rooms are not accessible to people with wheelchairs and the lifts are all over the place. The lifts will need to be much bigger. If we accept all that—the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, will probably be in charge of all this by then—I suspect that we will need to demolish many walls, floors, and staircases outside the main buildings in order to get that access. It is something that we need to think about.

One thing that I talked to the fire experts about was evacuation. I asked them about the Committee Corridor, which has half-hour fire-resistant doors between the Lords end and the Commons end. At the Lords end, there are seven, eight or maybe nine committee rooms, each of which can take 100 people. Therefore, 900 people might have to get out in the event of a fire at the other end. There are two narrow staircases to get people down to the ground floor. Noble Lords will know that the Labour Party had a meeting there this afternoon and we had to come down to vote. There were under 100 of us in that room and we all got down in time to vote, but multiplying that number by nine suggests that the size of the staircases will need to be looked at very carefully.

One of the fire experts said to me that they had not been able to persuade the House authorities—which might include the noble Baroness the Leader—to have a real live evacuation test with members of the public. There is a great difference between having members of the public do it and having volunteers, who are often young and healthy and move quite fast. We did the same thing when we trialled evacuation from the Channel Tunnel. We had an expert who could model the movement of people alongside the movement of a fire. That has not often been done, but he did it in connection with the airplane that crashed at East Midlands Airport about 10 years ago and he got within 10% accuracy of who would and would not die. It is terribly important that this is modelled using real live people—the kind of people we get in the committee rooms—and not volunteers, and that it is done at a very early stage before any design work is done on the refurbished building.

Finally, Amendment 16A is just an attempt to remind us all that there will be those who say, “Don’t put a water spray or mist system in this building. It’s a special building and it might affect the fabric and the pictures”. I remind your Lordships that, if this building catches fire, that too will affect the pictures and the fabric, because, as we all know, much of this building, including the roof, is timber. Therefore, it is good to listen to the experts in heritage, but the most important thing is to make sure that this building is preserved. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 5:45 pm, 22nd July 2019

My Lords, I want to make some brief comments. I start by reminding noble Lords that the shadow sponsor body sets six key strategic priorities in its publication about restoration and renewal produced in the spring—I know that everyone will have read it avidly and memorised it. The very first point in the very first block of priorities concerns fire—the risk of fire in the restored Palace and also during the restoration. Therefore, it is very much in the minds of the sponsor body, as your Lordships would expect.

The noble Lord’s point about evacuation was very interesting. My initial thought was that it really was not anything to do with the shadow sponsor body. It is an operational matter and something that we ought to do. Most of us, ever since being at school, have experienced fire drills. I thought I would be saying that this was a matter for the House, but the noble Lord made a more fundamental point about how much we do not know about how people use this place. One thing that the shadow sponsor body has found in its work is that people do not necessarily react as you would expect them to, so it is a very real point. However, I stand by my initial view that it is for the House authorities and not the shadow sponsor body to sort out the evacuation drill.

I hope that the noble Lord wants not to put on the face of the Bill a specific and technical response to fire but, rather, to probe whether we are taking it seriously. Having said that I am not speaking on behalf of the sponsor body, I know that we would be very keen to work with the noble Lord on this matter. Your Lordships will be aware that we have done a lot of work with Members on disability access issues, for example, and will be doing so on other matters, so I am very happy to talk to him about that.

His question about fire and heritage gives rise to a fundamental point, which is that noble Lords have many different priorities. Some say that heritage takes precedence and others say that accessibility does. I think that making something a number one priority above everything else on the face of the Bill would probably make life quite difficult later. There will be a point when the House has to make has to make these decisions. The shadow sponsor body, working with the designers, will put forward a whole range of propositions but it will be for the House to work through what it chooses to prioritise. Therefore, putting things on the face of the Bill that constrain that prioritisation could mean that Parliament has fewer choices when it comes to make a decision.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

I do not want to comment on this from the point of view of a member of the sponsor body, because I certainly am not. I was a member of the Joint Committee that reviewed the legislation but I am not speaking from that point of view either. I am speaking as somebody who, in his professional life before entering the world of politics, supervised construction projects. Indeed, I was supervising a project when the people adapting the sprinkler system with welding equipment set fire to the roof and the building burned down. Therefore, I am very well apprised of the risks and I think that the noble Lord has done us all a favour by raising them in the way that he has.

I want to comment in particular on the specific technical solution that the noble Lord has put forward. I think he will recognise that this project’s construction phase will last for at least another 10 and probably 15 years. Mist sprinkling had not even been invented 10 or 15 years ago, so we need to be very well aware that what technology will deliver now might be completely different from what it is appropriate to deliver later. Therefore, I very much hope that he will make allowances for the specific point that my noble friend has raised and ensure that, whatever discussions take place, we do not lock ourselves into a technical solution that becomes outdated and irrelevant.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:00 pm, 22nd July 2019

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the comments and amendments—Amendments 2A, 2B and 16A—of my noble friend Lord Berkeley. The House was made particularly alive to the vulnerability of the estate to fire by the recent incident at Notre-Dame, which happened during the restoration work, as we all know. Fortunately, in many respects, there are provisions currently in place within your Lordships’ House and across the Palace to protect the buildings and, we hope, reduce and mitigate the risks of anything similar happening. Not least, staff are employed to patrol the estate and we have all seen the developments and changes with the fire doors and other advances.

The technological advances and changes over the last decade commented on by my noble friend are something we need to be kept aware of. For the safety of the 8,000 people who work here, the 1 million or so who visit annually and, as has been touched on, the precious heritage of the building, it is imperative that we take any and all further steps necessary to ensure the utmost protection. As he touched on, steps must also be taken to ensure that evacuation procedures are up to scratch in the event of fire. One thing I have noticed as a new Member here is that some of the stairs do not stop at the level above or below, which I find a bit bizarre. Also—I am sure there is a very good reason—I have never heard a fire alarm or test within the building. I am sure it is because I have not been here at the right times, but during the hours of sitting I have never heard a test done on a fire alarm.

In recent years, I understand there have been two major royal palace fires. In each incident, the evacuation procedures meant that not a single individual was seriously injured. Should a fire take place in the royal Palace of Westminster, it will be a far greater challenge to protect all those in the building because of its size and nature. It will be useful for the House to consider what exact provisions will be necessary. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the amendments.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for tabling these amendments on fire safety and for his continued interest in this extremely important subject, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate.

I assure noble Lords that fire safety is recognised as being of paramount importance. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, said, it is very much on the mind and agenda of the sponsor body. It was good to hear that from somebody on that body, which had far more weight than my saying it on her behalf. One of the reasons these works are urgent is because of the alarming number of fires that have been caught just in time around the Palace. This is why we have 24-hour fire-safety patrols, and, more importantly, why full decant is required as soon as possible.

As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, the tragic fire of Notre-Dame was a stark reminder to us all of the risks to this historic building. There is no doubt that the best way to avoid a similar incident here is to get on with the job of protecting the thousands of people working here and the millions who come to visit, as the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, rightly said. The Bill is clear that the sponsor body must have regard to,

“the need to ensure that those works are carried out with a view to ensuring the safety and security of people who work in Parliament and of members of the public”.

Clearly, this will require the sponsor body and delivery authority to ensure that the Palace is as safe as reasonably practicable from the risk of fire during construction and subsequently in service. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, said, one of the key themes highlighted by the shadow sponsor body is for its vision of the programme to,

“ensure high standards of health, safety and wellbeing and provide appropriate protection for the building and those in it”.

Under the Bill, the sponsor body will be required to lay detailed proposals before Parliament for approval, and the Motion passed by both Houses last year requires that those proposals must include measures to ensure fire safety, among other factors. Clause 7 specifies that no Palace restoration works, other than preparatory works, may be carried out before the sponsor body has obtained parliamentary approval of these proposals. It defines these “preparatory works” as,

“initial design works, and … other works that do not affect the continued functioning of the Palace of Westminster for the purposes of either House of Parliament”.

As noble Lords will be aware, and indeed as the noble Lord said, the current work carried out by the Strategic Estates team to keep this place functioning is operated during restricted timeframes in order for the business of Parliament not to be affected. For example, the ongoing work on the cast iron roof programme can be conducted only when the House is not sitting and work must be stopped immediately if a complaint is made on grounds of noise by an MP or Peer. This sort of example highlights the need for swift progress to be made in decanting both Houses so that the sponsor body and delivery authority can get on with R&R, including the installation of the necessary fire-detection and prevention measures.

The Bill requires at Clause 6 that Parliament and the sponsor body enter into a parliamentary relationship agreement, which will contain commitments around the safety of the Palace, including mitigating fire risks. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, spoke on 25 April and at Second Reading on his understandable concerns about the fire safety of the Palace prior to the works beginning. Until the Palace is handed over to the sponsor body, the House authorities remain responsible for fire safety and have put in place a number of measures to protect the Palace and the roofs, as he mentioned, in particular.

As the noble Lord will be aware, Parliament’s fire safety strategy sets out particular requirements that will need to be considered as part of restoration and renewal. This includes the installation of a full water mist or water sprinkler system, although, as the noble Lords, Lord Stunell and Lord McNicol, said, we also need to ensure that we are fleet of foot with respect to technological advances. Already, the current fire safety improvement project has installed a water mist system throughout the basement, and it is operational. This was following lessons learned from the devastating fire at Glasgow School of Art, where the sprinklers had been installed but not turned on.

In addition, fire safety improvement works include having automatic smoke detection systems in most of the roof spaces across the Palace, and coverage of the remaining spaces will happen by December this year. The House authorities have also compartmentalised the roof space and extended the regular fire safety patrols to include the roofs. In the Palace more generally, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, there are now more than 700 fire doors in operation and strict requirements for all contractors to abide by the highest fire safety standards. I can reassure all noble Lord that those high fire safety standards will continue to apply throughout the works. In his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, makes a specific point about the fully automatic fire alarm system achieving the L1/P1 standard. I am aware that this level of detection is already written into Parliament’s fire safety strategy requirements.

Turning to his amendment regarding evacuation of the Palace, and the observations of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, at present, the fire risk management team carries out evacuation drills of all parliamentary buildings once a year; the Palace itself is evacuated twice a year. However, I accept his comment that it has proved difficult to stage these evacuations while the House is sitting. There have been previous evacuation trials involving volunteers in the Chambers and Committee Rooms; we will obviously continue to work to make sure that we do the best we can in this regard and, if there is more that can be done, we will look into it. Furthermore, it is expected that as part of the design works for R&R, the principal designers will use specific computer software to model evacuation routes, capacity and timings.

I cannot stress enough the importance that we place on fire safety. I hope the noble Lord will recognise that in the answers I have given. I fully support the principle of his amendments but, in light also of the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, we do not believe they need to be, or should be, included in the Bill. This is an extremely important issue and something that will be covered in the parliamentary relationship agreement, which we believe is a more appropriate vehicle for this kind of information. I hope that, in the light of my comments, the noble Lord is to a degree reassured. I assure him that we will continue to have this as our highest priority.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her comprehensive response. I am much more reassured than I was before, but not totally reassured. I will keep watching this. I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, including the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for putting me right on one or two things. That has been useful. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, who has had first-hand experience in this area.

I said that my amendments were probing, and of course one should not put particular technological solutions in a Bill like this because things might move on, as noble Lords have said. The key point is to have a debate about these issues and for the Government to be aware of them.

Corners can still be cut in any building. I recall that when I was first in your Lordships’ House, a long time ago, I had locked myself out of my house and so slept here, in the family room downstairs. I had a very comfortable night but in the morning I went to see the then Black Rod and said, “You said you patrolled everything once an hour”. He said, “We must have patrolled the family room”, but I said, “Well, the door squeaks so I would have heard it. I just don’t believe you”. People cut corners; that is human nature. So, in addition to the patrols, detection and suppression is vital.

I pay tribute to the work that is going on to get into this. We have to keep going and make sure that as work moves forward these issues are taken into account, as well as the evacuation. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2A withdrawn.

Amendment 2B not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2: The Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body